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01 July 2010

Esposito’s Future of Islam

(1) The West is to Blame
(2) The Muslim Mainstream
(3) Islam’s Reformers
(4) Muslims in the West
(4.1) Integration or What?
(4.2) Outside Influences
(4.3) Going Seriously Wrong
(5) Pluralism and Separation of Church and State
(5.1) Pluralism
(5.2) Separation of Church and State
(6) The Nature of Islamic Reform
(7) Problems must be tackled – Thesis 92

It is a shame that Professor Esposito doesn’t put his great knowledge of Islam to better use. His book “The Future of Islam” [Ref 1] is a great disappointment with its mistaken analyses and unconvincing arguments.

(1) The West is to Blame

According to the professor the lack of Islamic reform is the fault of former colonial powers who helped create and now maintain the authoritarian states that suppress debate and new ways of thinking in their efforts to stay in power.

He says “[the impotence of those who want change for the better is] the product of centuries [emphasis added] of European colonial dominance”. (p61)

And: “The majority of governments …. in the Muslim world have been authoritarian, a legacy of European colonial rule and post independence regimes that have not fostered democratic governments, institutions, or values.” (p63)

This opinion permeates the whole book showing disregard for history or amazing ignorance.

Large parts of the Islamic Middle East never experienced colonial domination (Saudi Arabia, Islam’s heartland, and Iran). The League of Nations mandates that gave Britain and France control over large areas of the former Ottoman Empire ran from the early 1920’s to the late 1940’s, twenty years or so.

Where do Esposito’s “centuries” come from?

He ignores the Ottoman Empire, whose Sultan was also the Caliph, Muhammad’s representative on Earth, that ruled the Islamic world for more than 400 years up to the end of the Great War in 1918. This unchanging Islamic rule under the authority of the Caliph for so long has more to do with the lack of progress in the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire than France and Britain’s brief influence.

Was he thinking of India where Britain was influential or in control for 200 hundred years which is now the world’s largest democracy and an emerging economic power? Hindus don’t seem to have suffered from colonial domination over a much longer period.

And, the authoritarian regime that exists in Egypt today, the most populous Middle East country, is the direct descendant, through inheritance, revolution and assassination, of Muhammad Ali, the mid 19th century Ottoman governor. As for the continuing grip of authoritarian regimes he should consider Islam itself.

Islam is authoritarian. In every field of human activity, the Quran, a hadith, a fatwa, the Shariah, an imam, lays down the law. Believers expect to be told what they can and cannot do. They eagerly turn to authority figures for the simplest of things. For example, the British Muslim mother phoning in on the UK based Islam Channel to ask if it is permissible for her daughter to have plaits. (She didn’t get an answer as the foreign imam’s English was not good enough to understand the question.)

(2) The Muslim Mainstream

Esposito wants us to believe there is a Muslim mainstream, another theme of his book.

“The missing link [for policy makers and the public] has been the voices of the mainstream Muslim majority. Today, we do have direct access to mainstream Muslim views on a broad spectrum of topics.” (p7)

He says: “The good news is that Gallup's polling of Muslims worldwide determined that the vast majority of respondents (93 percent) belong to the mainstream who believe the 9/11 attacks were not justified.

This mainstream 93 percent, who comprise both critical and supportive people, represents our potential partners in improving relations and fighting radicalism.

…. we [must] also pay attention to the other 7 percent, the politically radicalized who represent some 91 million Muslims. People in this group believe that 9/11 was completely justified and view the United States unfavorably.” (p155)

Esposito fails to explain the Gallup Poll question on Muslim attitudes to the 9/11 attacks recorded answers in five categories; “completely justified” at one end of the scale and then “largely justified” through to “completely unjustified” at the other end. [Ref 2]

He counts only those who said 9/11 was “completely justified” as the politically radicalized and the source of terrorism and conflict. He doesn’t tell us the percentage saying “largely justified” is included in his mainstream 93 percent.

It is unbelievable that anyone who thinks the 9/11 attacks “largely justified” can be in the mainstream with its connotation of reasonableness or a “potential partner”. On balance, I don’t think the professor is being deceitful. It’s wishful thinking when a dose of realism about the degree of hostility and ignorance in the Muslim world would do a lot more good.

The futility of the professor’s wishful thinking is exposed when he tells us what mainstream Muslims want, another Gallup Poll result keenly but mistakenly promoted by the professor as a good sign. To begin with it’s not too bad. Muslims want what most of us want; better jobs, increased economic well-being, prosperity, and a better future for their children. At the same time, democracy is cited as necessary for a more just society.

Regarding democracy Esposito reports the Gallup findings as follows:

“Large numbers of Muslims …. clearly want broader democratization. …. Admiration for Western democratic values does not, however, translate into support for a Western secular model of government. Most Muslims believe their own religion and values are essential to their progress.

…. majorities of Muslims expressed a desire for Shariah, the basis for religious values, as "a" source of law.

…. most want democratic and religious principles and values to coexist in their government and thus see a role for religious principles in the formulation of state legislation.” [emphasis added]

However, most do not want Shariah as "the" source of law; nor do they want a theocracy (a clergy-governed state). Significant majorities in many countries say religious leaders should play no direct [emphasis added] role in drafting a country's constitution, writing national legislation, drafting new laws, determining foreign policy and international relations, or deciding how women should dress in public or what should be televised or published in newspapers.

Thus many Muslims want neither a Western secular nor a theocratic state but rather one that combines religious values with broader political participation, political freedoms, and rule of law. (p146)

In only a few countries (Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh) did a majority say they want Shariah as the "only" source of law." (p154)

This may be a “few” countries but Egypt, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are among the most populous, and account for nearly 40 percent of the world’s Muslims, and according to Gallup want Shariah to be the “only” source of law. No doubt they would promote themselves as the example to follow.

The whole matter is totally confused. What is meant by a role for religious principles in the formulation of state legislation? If Shariah is to be the partial or entire base of a “democratic” government who decides what Shariah prescribes and how it applies other than the Muslim jurists who always perform that role; certainly not democratically elected politicians?

We are left in doubt about a whole set of issues, including whether or not “Muslim democracy” would permit religious freedom of the sort characteristic of liberal democracies. What about minorities?

And of paramount importance, what do Muslims in non-Muslim countries “want”? Is it their ambition also to be ruled by Shariah in whole or in part? Are they working to that end?

Esposito himself says “…. perceptions of what the Shariah represents and the degree to which it is possible to implement its rulings in society vary enormously …." (p146)

Yes, it is an enormous problem. Esposito admits:

“Islamic law (Shariah) is often portrayed as a medieval legal system used by religious zealots to oppress women and deny human rights for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. There are good reasons for this perception. [emphasis added] Islamic …. has been used to restrict women's rights and to mandate stoning of women charged with adultery, amputating the limbs of thieves, and prosecuting any Muslim who tries to convert to another religion for apostasy.” (p40)

“Women in the West often link what they believe is the unequal status of Muslim women to the Shariah, and with good cause. [emphasis added] While Islamic law served as an idealized blueprint and moral compass for early Muslim communities, today it is used as an instrument of patriarchal and tribal repression by retrogressive ulama and fundamentalists, most recently in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, and the Talibans Afghanistan, drawing widespread international criticism and condemnation.” (p154)

Faced with this grim but accurate picture Esposito asks:

But why, then, do many Muslims regard Shariah so positively, as central to their faith? Looking more deeply, we discover that Shariah has many meanings. [emphasis added] (p40)

Esposito doesn’t explain these “many meanings”. He seems to be crossing his fingers and hoping it will all work out well in the end, though he does point out:

“Militant movements as well as some conservative Muslims reject democracy as incompatible with Islam and its traditions. They contend that democracy is a Western institution that seeks to divide the Islamic community and that its values (popular sovereignty, individual rights and freedoms) contradict Islamic values and are a threat to society.” (p147)

The sense or otherwise of market research questions asking people “what they want” depends on the design and circumstances of the questionnaire.

Did everyone understand the question in the same way, was the topic covered by more than one question, were there follow up questions to help qualify and interpret the answer a person gave? How was the sampling done? It must have been extremely difficult in many parts of the Islamic world. Esposito doesn’t say and the information isn’t in the public domain.

People also sometimes don’t really know “what they want”, or have only a very vague, ill-formed idea about a particular matter despite the researcher’s inclination to assume there is an answer. People also believe contradictory things, are prejudiced and ignorant. Perhaps Gallup should have asked “What do Muslims know?”

Given the sensitivity of the subject one should also ask if any undue influence played a part in the choice and design of the questions. Who pays for the research and thus funds it? For example, how many in the Muslim world still believe the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by the US itself or believe that apostasy should be punished or that Muslims should not marry non-Muslims. The answers might have been embarrassing and not very mainstream.

For example, in a survey of British Muslims carried out by Populus in 2007, it was found that 51 percent believed marrying a non-muslim was wrong and 31 percent thought apostasy was forbidden and punishable by death. Nearly a third said they preferred to live under Shariah rather than British law. [Ref 3]

The other leading figure in this Gallup project is Dalia Mogahed, Senior Analyst and Executive Director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies, a hijab wearing Muslim lady. She was appointed a Muslim affairs advisor to President Obama and later provoked controversy [Ref 4] by appearing on a British television show hosted by a member of the extremist Hizb ut Tahrir group (they believe in the non-violent destruction of Western democracy and the creation of an Islamic state under Shariah Law across the world) to talk about Shariah Law.

She said the Western view of Shariah was "oversimplified" and the majority of women around the world associate it with "gender justice".

Esposito must be setting great store by Islamic reform happening soon and on a large scale. So what does he say about the people who will make this happen?

(3) Islam’s Reformers

The third chapter of this four chapter book introduces a sample of Muslims identified by Esposito as leading reformers, the Martin Luthers (Esposito’s designation) of Islam. Here the book is informative and with the first two chapters passes as a mini-primer on Islam today.

Esposito sets the scene.

“…. the call to reform Islam, to strengthen its relevance in a rapidly changing twenty-first-century world, has intensified. If some say that Islam is a perfect religion that doesn't need to change or adapt, others stress that Islam is inherently dynamic and that reinterpretation and reform are critical in the struggle to respond to the demands of our times, to marginalize extremists, and to promote gender equality, religious pluralism, and human rights.

…. But, if this is the case, who and where are the Islamic reformers, the Muslim Martin Luthers of today?”

For Islam’s Luthers he gives us:

Tariq Ramadan …. according to Time magazine one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Pre-eminent muftis like Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Mustafa Ceric, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Qatar's Yusuf Qaradawi …. Nurcholish Madjid from Indonesia, Timothy Winter in Britain, three female reformers (who often have diametrically opposed positions, according to Esposito!) Farhat Hashmi in Pakistan and Canada, Amina Wadud in the United States, and Heba Raouf in Egypt, and Abdullah Gymnastiar in Indonesia, and Amr Khaled from Egypt, representing a new breed of popular televangelists.

Three of these reformers are outstanding examples of the difficulties of Islamic reform: Tariq Ramadan who faces forward (in a vague kind of way); Timothy Winter who faces backwards; and Yusuf Qaradawi who faces both ways.

Esposito describes Ramadan’s views as follows:

“Change, according to Ramadan, requires re-reading the scriptural sources themselves with a new eye.... This renewal is not a modification of the sources but a transformation of the mind and eyes that read them, which are indeed naturally influenced by the new social, political and scientific environment in which they live.

…. He seeks to demonstrate the continuity between his reformism and Islamic tradition.” (p95)

And later on:

“Tariq Ramadan, conscious that any criticism of the classical tradition risks undermining his credibility and reformist agenda among large sectors of Muslims, avoids taking on the question directly and tries to walk down the middle.” (p97)

That’s for sure! And see the following Ramadan contradiction.

“For Tariq Ramadan, Muslims in the West, like other Europeans and Americans, share an identity informed by multiple subcultures. Muslims are Muslim by religion and French, British, German, or American by culture.” (p112)

And then:

“However, Ramadan believes that integration does not mean wholesale assimilation. Muslims must be allowed to develop their own European Muslim identity and culture ….” (p113)

So what culture is a Western based Muslim meant to have; that of his adopted country, or an Islamic one? We get different ideas from Ramadan from one page to the next.

Timothy Winter, a Cambridge University professor and prominent Muslim religious leader believes the classical Islamic thinkers and jurists got it right.

“Winter insists that Islam's past heritage, the classical Islamic tradition, not Islamic fundamentalism or Islamic modernism, holds the key to the future of Islam and Muslims. The providential success story of Islamic civilization needs to be reappropriated and built on: (p106)

…. [he] represents many Muslims in his clear and straight-forward rejection of extremists like al-Qaeda as religiously illegitimate and inauthentic. A traditionalist, Winter decries extremists' failure to adhere to the classical canons of lslamic law and theology and denounces their fatwas …. (p99)

Muslim extremism, Winter contends, is a by-product of modernity andglobalization.” (p102)

Muslim extremism …. is a by-product of modernity and globalization! That is rich! Extremism, the use of violence to obtain political ends has been an essential part of Islamic expansion, globalisation you can call it, since Islam’s foundation 1400 years ago. It was armies not missionaries that reached the Pyrenees and the Indus valley, that captured Constantinople and besieged Vienna.

Wahhabism - which according to esposito “represents a jihadist culture that promotes a militant, violent brand of Islam, antipluralist and often religiously intolerant of other believers” - came out of 18th century Arabia the heartland of Islam. Is that a “by-product of modernity and globalization”?

Most of the discussion of Winter’s and Qaradawi’s views (several pages) concern terrorism. Well it’s good to know that there are leading Islamic thinkers who in varying ways condemn the deliberate killing of civilians, though they clash to the extent that Qaradawi believes it is alright to kill Israeli civilians, but what has all that got to do with reform?

Esposito’s reasons for choosing Qaradawi as a reformer include:

“In penal law, Qaradawi maintains that the least rather than the maximum punishment should be applied; for example, repentance is sufficient to rescind the hadd punishment (amputation for theft, stoning for adultery, etc.), and the punishment for drinking wine ought to be discretionary.” (p98)

“…. Islam says Qaradawi, is "the middle way" (al-wasat) between extremism and secularism that rests on religious interpretations emphasizing "moderation." (p100)

To modern people amputation for theft is wrong. You wouldn’t do it under any circumstances. How on Earth can someone be half secular and half extremist. Qaradawi is a divided (as well as divisive) character. It’s another Islamic fudge.

Not one of the above Islamic thinkers provides a convincing example of reform.

Tariq Ramadan is no Martin Luther. Luther’s 95 theses are categorical and unambiguous. e.g.

2. Only God can give salvation - not a priest. 21. An indulgence will not save a man. 77. Not even St. Peter could remove guilt. 92. All those who say there is no problem must go. Problems must be tackled. [Ref 5]

Thesis 92 is especially bold (and relevant). Luther makes no gestures towards established religious practice or conventional thinking. There isn’t one thing for one audience and something else for another.

Qaradawi isn’t really addressing reform, he isn’t saying anything new, but reaffirming Islam’s public assertiveness. Its in your face attitude.

Esposito asked the wrong question “ …. who and where are the Islamic reformers, the Muslim Martin Luthers of today”

He should have asked where are the Muslim reformers who take account of modern science and the Enlightenment and why is the Islamic world so backward in every field of human endeavour? The whole book has a single, not very encouraging, reference.

“At the end of the nineteenth century, Sayyid Ahmad Khan argued …. "Today, as in former days, we need a modern theology by which we either render futile the tenets of modern sciences or [show them to be] doubtful, or bring them into harmony with the doctrines of Islam.” (p92)

Esposito himself accidentally, in what must be a Freudian slip, draws attention to the feebleness of Islamic reform:

“Reformists …. can be found at Islamic institutes and universities, at academic and religious conferences, and in parliamentary debates. Reformist ideas proliferate in hundreds [emphasis added] of books and articles, audios, videos and DVDs, in newspaper editorials, in muftis' fatwas, and on the Internet.” (p89)

Hundreds! That is a relief. One person could probably read the entire cannon of Islamic reformist thinking.

(4) Muslims in the West

Esposito’s treatment of Muslims in the West is totally inadequate. We get the standard condemnation of hate preachers but what we mainly get is special pleading and an exiguous failure to understand the depth of the problem and to suggest any solutions.

(4.1) Integration or What?

Despite the talk of integration and the idea of “European Muslims” or “American Muslims” rather than “Muslims in Europe” or “Muslims in America”, the discussion, the language, the examples, the arguments are always about Muslims as somehow different, a distinct and different class of people. They need understanding, consideration, because they are Muslims, a separate community!

The message seems to be, it is you Europe, you America, that has to change if we are to fit in. We are only going to identify with you if you change to suit us.

Esposito poses a question.

“Whether Muslim communities in America and Europe will be able to supply the financial and human resources necessary to build a strong self-sustaining community in the twenty-first century remains an important and unanswered question.” (p35)

Would Esposito speak about American black people in this way as if they should exist in some “community” of their own. Could that mean separate neighbourhoods, resources, institutions, just for them? Calling the community self-sustaining even requiring financial and human resources seems to say so. I think that’s called segregation. Perhaps segregation is what Muslims want. Surely Esposito should be talking about how individuals integrate into the community of all citizens.

The comments of Esposito’s reformers are instructive.

“For Mustafa Ceric, as for Ramadan and others, the successful encounter of Europe and Islam has two interconnected prerequisites: Muslims must embrace their European identity, and European governments must facilitate Muslims' integration by accommodating and institutionalising their religious needs. [emphasis added]

…. European governments, he believes, will only gain the trust of the Muslim community when they institutionalize Islam through state sponsorship of Muslim schools, state councils, and mosques. [emphasis added] Ceric also emphasizes the importance of training European imams in Europe rather than in Muslim countries ..” (p114-115)

Winter starts by asking a sensible question:

“Are we Americans, or Canadians, or Britons, simply by virtue of holding a passport and finding employment? Or is this our emotional home?”

But then crassly rubs in Muslim separateness. He warns:

“An insulting guest will not be tolerated indefinitely even by the most courteous of hosts.... A measured, concerned critique of social dissolution, unacceptable beliefs, or destructive foreign policies will always be a required component of Muslim discourse, but wild denunciations of Great Satans or global Crusader Conspiracies are, for Muslims here, not only dangerous, but are also discourteous scarcely a lesser sin.” (p116)

Yes, Muslims are outsiders. It’s just that they need to improve their manners. And those denunciations, apparently acceptable if made by Muslims elsewhere, are dangerous (to the denunciator) and discourteous in the West itself.

Mustafa Ceric is more ambitious and even blunter. He says:

“Muslims must become educated and get organized. The strength and unity of Muslims in one country will strengthen the Muslim community in other countries.

…. If you are strong, united and organized here we will naturally be strong, united and organized in Bosnia, Kashmir, Palestine, and the rest of the world.... It is useless if only parts of that body are functioning and others are not: we all need to get our acts together." (p115–117)

What does he mean by strength and unity? What are they going to do with this strength and unity? Would the leader of the Catholic Church in England speak like this about Catholics? The leaders of the Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, would they?

Many individual Muslims themselves seem set on marking themselves out as distinct and separate from the rest of their fellow citizens. I am a Muslim and I am different. We do this. We don’t do that. For a start, we dress differently and women don’t show their hair in public.

It is an appalling idea to ban a piece of clothing in a liberal democracy but the headscarf is a political badge and it represents something. It represents I believe I’m different from you and I’m superior. I don’t flaunt myself in front of strangers. You do.

On many western Muslim women a headscarf is also close to rank hypocrisy. The idea that it retains their modesty by concealing what men find attractive is a laugh. It was fascinating to see the headscarfed young Muslim women attending the recent British Council and Intelligence Squared debate [Ref 6] when Tariq Ramadan proposed the motion “Europe is failing its Muslims” (he lost, 51% to 37%, 12% undecided). So many of those headscarves were fashion items, some even flamboyant, designed to draw attention to the wearer. And some wearing jeans!

The continual Muslim protest about the Palestinian problem (whatever its rights or wrongs) drives home the point that Muslims have a larger loyalty, than the loyalty to the country where they live, and many were born, and their fellow citizens. Why do they protest as Muslims? Do they protest as Muslims with such vehemence, such regularity, about oppression on other peoples, the Christians in Sudan for example.

(4.2) Outside Influences

In a measured way Esposito recognises some of the negative and backward forces at work on Muslims in Europe. He says:

“…. Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other Gulf States have provided substantial funding to build mosques and schools and to hire imams (mosque leaders), teach Arabic and Islam, distribute religious literature, and support visits from popular religious leaders.

While this kind of support can initially strengthen Islamic institutions, it can also negatively affect communities in the long run. Dependence on foreign sources like Saudi Arabia with its Wahhabi brand of Islam or other Muslim countries can impede Muslim integration.” (p24)

“…. wealthy businessmen and organisations in Saudi and the Gulf have provided financial support to radical Wahhabi or Salafi groups representing a jihadist culture that promotes a militant, violent brand of Islam.

Wahhabi/Salafi religious exclusivism is clearly antipluralist and often religiously intolerant of other believers …. Wahhabis seek to promote and impose their strict beliefs and interpretations …”. (p77)

There is no follow up to this, nothing on what needs to be done. On the other hand, when it comes to so-called Western interference in Muslim countries Esposito is continually giving us advice. US and British foreign policy has to change we are told time and time again.

It would be nice if the professor could be so explicit, so forward, so earnest, so vocal, about the impact of Saudi “foreign policy”. Why doesn’t the professor state clearly that Saudi financing of extreme forms of Islam outside Saudi Arabia has to stop if there is to be any progress?

You also wonder where the Saudi Wahhabis and their extreme form of Islam fit into the professor’s statistics. Are they in the 97 percent mainstream?

(4.3) Going Seriously Wrong

The Islam Channel provides an excellent if disturbing showpiece of what is wrong with Islam in one European country. The Islam Channel is the most watched Muslim TV channel in the UK. It was monitored over a three month period during which it repeatedly promoted reactionary views. [Ref 7] The advice offered on the channel’s religious advice programme included: a Muslim woman cannot leave her house without her husband’s permission; a women who use perfume outside the home should be considered to be ‘prostitutes’; and, Muslim women are only allowed to accept jobs if the workplace is gender segregated.

Viewers were also told that it is not allowed for Muslims to celebrate birthdays and repeatedly advised not to marry non-Muslims. One guest also said she had moved house to avoid her children “growing up in a white-dominated area”, a view that was not challenged by the programme host.

Esposito mentions the views on marriage of one of his reformers.

“…. Although [Nurcholish] argued that no text in the Quran explicitly bans a Muslim from marrying a non-Muslim, most ulama …. continue to follow classical Islamic law and believe that interreligious marriages between Muslim women and non-Muslim men are un-Islamic. This position and others led some to condemn Nurcholish as kafir, an unbeliever.” (p110)

European Muslim leaders claiming they want European Muslims to integrate (not assimilate) often talk about the importance of values that Muslims and non-Muslims have in common but this doesn’t seem to include matters covered by Shariah, which Esposito and Gallup have shown to be so important to Muslims.

We see already in the UK the creation of Shariah courts [Ref 8] so that Muslims can resolve family and non-criminal disputes according to Shariah. Can you think of anything more likely to undermine social cohesion; different ideas of what is fair and how to obtain justice in divorce, child custody, inheritance, and even commerce, matters that can affect us all?

Regarding the famous Danish cartoons, a defining episode for Muslims in Europe which has still not run its course, the professor says:

“The Danish cartoons and their subsequent publication and controversy in other European countries provided an occasion for right-wing anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim factions, who see an inherent clash between Islam and modern Western secular society and values, to challenge Muslims to demonstrate that they can be "proper Europeans."

Surely he should be talking about the great majority of Europeans that believe free speech achieved over many years at great cost is important including the right to mock religion, and indeed Muslims in Europe are rightly being challenged to be “proper Europeans”.

The professor could have pointed out such mockery happens to all religions and it is totally wrong for Muslims “[to] see the cartoons as Islamophobic and racist, intended to humiliate rather than extend the same respect that Jews and Christians enjoy.” (p27) They must just get used to it if they want to be Europeans would be good advice.

The 26th British Social Attitudes survey published at the beginning of 2010 sheds light on the position Muslims have created for themselves (with very little help from right-wing anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim factions, who see an inherent clash between Islam and modern Western secular society and values).

This, the most authoritative survey of its kind, found at least a third (34%) of the British public are negative about Muslims, not much more are neutral, and barely a quarter have positive feelings. This is in stark contrast to the low level of any negative feelings (6% - 15%) towards other religious groups. [Ref 9]

All the talk of “common values” doesn’t wash when in vital areas there are major differences.

(5) Pluralism and Separation of Church and State

The book discusses pluralism and the separation of church and state. Esposito clearly thinks these are important topics. It is a shame he doesn’t spell out how important.

The separation of church and state is a central pillar of liberal democracy, and so is pluralism with one important qualification, and unless Muslims in Europe accept this wholeheartedly, Muslim/non-Muslim relations have a bleak future.

(5.1) Pluralism

Amazingly, Esposito begins by claiming that it is the West’s pluralism that is being put to the test.

He asks: "What are the limits of this Western pluralism? Whom does it include or exclude? Is it staunchly secular or permanently Judeo-Christian? Can American and European societies fully accept Muslims (as well as Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and others) not as "foreigners" to be tolerated but as respected fellow citizens and neighbours with equal political and religious rights?" (p23)

Muslims in Europe don’t have equal political and religious rights! Can he really believe that? Whether people get treated as foreigners depends on whether or not they behave like foreigners (like wanting Shariah courts, for example) but there is only one class of citizenship everyone having the same political and religious rights in the European countries that I know.

Some reality creeps in later when he expresses caution. Pluralism has its dangers.

“…. Muslim democrats in many countries need to demonstrate that when in power they too will value political pluralism, that their aspiration is not to come to power democratically in order to impose their new "enlightened" government.

…. We forget that democratization is an erratic and potentially dangerous process. The Western experience was a process of trial and error, accompanied by civil wars and intellectual and religious conflicts.” (p149)

No. We do not forget. This is why there is so much animosity towards the likes of the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) which is very active politically in East London and the East London Mosque (ELM). The ELM allowed its facilities to be used by the most obnoxious hate preachers and claims it didn’t know what these preachers represented.

The IFE was exposed on a Channel 4 Dispatches TV programme [Ref 10] as saying one thing in public but behind closed doors via its senior representatives revealing its true intentions, the establishment of an Islamic state. IFE members are told “we have to accept every aspect of Islam. Political aspect, economical aspect because Islam provides all the solutions. Allah gives us everything, the Shariah covers everything, every aspect of life.” And “Democracy, if it means that, at the expense of not implementing Shariah, no one will agree to that”.

When all this is made public we get the standard excuses and denials; the statements are taken out of context, it’s islamophobic even to notice such things! And we get the continuing untruthful claims that the IFE is primarily a ‘community organisation’ with an ‘emphasis on service delivery rather than political or ideological programmes’ despite the evidence.

Hitler and the Nazis came to power democratically. They also demonstrated if you go on repeatedly lying long enough some people will believe you. We know groups of fanatics can have consequences out of all proportion to their numbers. And we now have Iran demonstrating that a party in power that believes it is doing God’s work, that its policies have religious approval, or it can fool people they have religious approval, will not give up power except through violence.

Pluralism is vital to the West but western pluralists will draw the line at those who would destroy pluralism.

It is interesting to compare the views on religious pluralism of some of Esposito’s reformers. The liberal view – we co-exist peacefully but also agree all religions are equal and all roads lead to God - is unfortunately at odds with the latest reform thinking on apostasy in Islam.

“Nurcholish …. maintains that the Islamic law on apostasy, which prescribes the death penalty, has no basis in the Quran. Rather, it was a man-made effort in early Islam to prevent and punish the equivalent of desertion or treason. Times have changed, he argues, and so must the law. Citing Quran 3:85 and 18:29, Nurcholish argues that punishment for leaving the faith is not a matter for the state but God's decision on the Day of judgment.” [emphasis added] (p96)

“Ali Gomaa cites the Quran "The essential question before us is can a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam? The answer is yes, they can because the Quran says, 'Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion,' [Quran, 109:6] …. But freedom, Ali Gomaa stresses, also means responsibility. Choice means freedom, including the freedom to abandon one's religion, although it is a sin punishable by God on the Day of Judgment.” [emphasis added] (p97)

There is still a punishment for apostasy but it is from God on the day of judgement. So much for pluralism. But Nurcholish, again quoting the Quran, apparently disagrees with himself.

“…., [Nurcholish] believes [Religious pluralism and tolerance] are not simply theological issues but a mandate, rooted in Quranic passages (2:62; 5:69) that teach that God will judge and reward all believers, including Jews and Christians, [emphasis added] in the next life. Therefore, all religions are on a par with Islam, and God gives salvation to anyone regardless of his or her religion.” [emphasis added] (p110)

Ceric, another one of Esposito’s reformers, in a stirring call for religious pluralism gives a warning, accidentally or otherwise, that pluralism for Muslims does have a limit.

“…. Ceric advocates a democracy incorporating a strong policy of religious pluralism and rejects proponents of "a clash":

We don't believe in the clashes of civilizations, we don't believe in the clashes of religions, we believe in the clashes of civilization and non-civilization.... We believe in clashes between religion and non-religion, we believe in the clashes between good and evil, because it happens all the time.” (p108)

No room at the Pluralist inn for agnostics or atheists, then.

(5.2) Separation of Church and State

Much less is said about separation of church and state than pluralism. The outlook on this issue is not good. Esposito defines the fundamental Islamic position early in the book.

“It is important at the outset to remember that the topic of Islam and of Muslims is political as well as religious. Islam today is not only a faith that inspires personal piety and provides meaning and guidance for this life and the next. It is also an ideology and worldview that informs Muslim politics and society. [emphasis added] Muslim governments and opposition movements, religious leaders and laity, appeal to and use religion to legitimate their beliefs, policies, and actions.” (p4)

Thus Islam always seeks a political role in addition to the role it might have as a moral compass used by individuals. There is always going to be a correct Islamic view decided or designed by imans and religious scholars on any and all political issues.

Esposito quotes one of his reformers in what looks like an effort to allay Western concerns.

“Winter dismisses the concept of theocracy as a modern aberration, a departure from Islamic belief and tradition. No single model of an Islamic state exists, nor is there any basis for a theocracy: The Taliban, by ruling directly rather than advising hereditary rulers, have similarly combined the "sword" and the "pen." Far from being a traditionalist move, this is a new departure for Islam, and mainstream scholarship regards it with deep suspicion.” (p106)

One of Esposito’s Islamic Martin Luthers is Sheik Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt. His views on the separation of church and state are interesting.

Esposito says: “However, Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt, where political parties are strictly controlled and religious organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood are officially banned, insists that Islamic parties and organizations and Islamic investment houses are un-Islamic.

…. The government-appointed Grand Mufti of Egypt, who critics charge reflects the Mubarak government's position, maintains that it is "unfair to raise the flag of religion" to acquire power in Parliament or in any professional association or organization. It is repugnant to Islam for one group to claim a monopoly on religion so that those outside their circle are not religious:” (p107)

This is Egypt, one of the authoritarian regimes (kept in power by the West), and Esposito rubs this in, pointing out the Grand Mufti is “government-appointed”. We should take the Mufti’s views with a pinch of salt. The Mufti’s views on the separation of politics and religion are suspect; are they what he is obliged to say or are they genuine and freely arrived at?

As if to explain why Esposito has so little to offer on this issue, Yusuf Qaradawi, one of Esposito's leading examples of Islamic reformers, has recently been reported as saying:

"Secularism can never enjoy a general acceptance in an Islamic society. For Muslim societies, the acceptance of secularism means something totally different. As Islam is a comprehensive system of worship (Ibadah) and legislation (Shari’ah), the acceptance of secularism means abandonment of Shari’ah, a denial of the divine guidance and a rejection of Allah’s injunctions." [Ref 11]

Esposito also provides historical reasons why Islam has a role in politics and why this has increased in recent decades. Most of chapter two is devoted to this. This is, of course, easy work for him as it largely concerns blaming the West.

The secular path has been tried and it hasn’t worked. The loss of the “Six Day War”, and the support the Americans gave the Israelis was a great shock and now of course “The War On Terror” which is seen as a war on Islam has given Muslims a reason to be more religious. Religion and the Shia/Sunni split is also an instrument in regional rivalries.

(6) The Nature of Islamic Reform

In her foreword to the book Karen Armstrong says:

“A similar process [reform] is now under way in the Muslim world, where the modernization process has been even more problematic than that of sixteenth-century Europe, because it has been complicated by the colonial disruption and continued Western influence in the internal affairs of the former colonies.

One comes away from this book convinced that the future of Islam does not simply depend on the effectiveness of a few Muslim reformers but that the United States and Europe also have a major role to play. If short-sighted Western policies have helped to create the current impasse, they will, if not corrected, continue to have a negative effect upon the region, will weaken the cause of reform, and play into the hands of extremists.” (pxi)

No. One comes away from this book, realising what a feeble sham Islamic reform really is and Professor Esposito and Karen Armstrong are no help.

The history of Islamic reform is not encouraging. It has usually been about following Islam more faithfully and now in modern times more about interpretation of Islam’s holy text.

Esposito tells us: “Reform has been an integral part of Islam's history. …. In every age, the glaring disparities (real or perceived) between God's will and the state of the world have inspired religious reformers (mujaddids) and movements that called Muslims to reform their society and follow Islam more faithfully. This was supported by the belief, from a hadith, that in every century "God will send to His community one who will renew its religion." (p90)

…. to restore true Islamic practice and thus regenerate a community that tends, over time, to wander from the straight path.” (p91)

And now:

“Today, reformers rely heavily on ideas and strategies developed by Muslim leaders who faced the crisis of European colonialism and hegemony in the late nineteenth century. In the midst of political and economic decline …” (p91)

“Modern reformers …. go directly to the Quran. They feel free to reject past interpretations that they see as conditioned by historical and social contexts, no longer relevant or useful and, most important, not based on a Quranic prescription. They re-read sacred texts in today's context and produce new or fresh interpretations of the Quran.” (p96)

The dependence on holy text with its limitations of time and space, its incompleteness, its contradictions, is ludicrous. Just how many times can you interpret a particular passage?

The validity of repeated reinterpretation is also challenged by the Muslim establishment. Iqbal Sacranie (the man who thought death was too good for Salman Rushdie) while he was general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said in his annual report:

“Little do they realise that unlike other religious constructs, Islam is a revealed and not priest-made religion. It is sourced in the eternal and the immutable, The Qur'an and the Sunnah, or the example and teachings of the Prophet, peace be upon him. It is both Text and a historical continuity preserved in the life of the Islamic Ummah from day one to the present day. The role of the ulama is only to teach and to explain the meaning of the Text and not to change the very meaning by interpreting and re-interpreting over and over again.”

[You must assume that "to explain the meaning of the Text" by some miracle involves no human judgement.]

Arrogance and twisted reasoning apart, you see his point.

The possibility of real change makes an appearance but it soon disappears.

We are told: “Islamic modernists …. called for a bold reinterpretation (ijtihad) of Islamic law and theology, one that would distinguish between the fundamental and unchangeable religious observances of Islamic law (prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage) and social legislation (marriage, divorce, contracts, and even political systems) that could be reformulated and changed to meet the demands of changing societies and modern life.”

This is reinforced a few pages later.

“…. reformers often emphasize that they are not advocating anything radically "new," that Islamic tradition has always recognized the need to reinterpret its sources in light of current cultural and social realities.

Like Islamic modernists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most reformers today draw a sharp distinction between obligations to God or worship (such as prayer, zakat, the fast of Ramadan) and laws that govern social and human affairs (marriage, divorce, inheritance, contracts, bank interest, mortgages) that can be changed in response to new circumstances.” (p95)

But this contradicts other passages.

“…. a key method for Islamic reform, which is frequently cited today: making the important distinction between unchanging, divinely revealed principles and values (Shariah) and historically conditioned human interpretations (fiqh), or man-made Islamic laws. These man-made laws must be able to respond to changing circumstances and new problems arising in modernity.” (p92)

So Shariah is part of the divinely revealed principles and values that cannot be changed. And Shariah has been defined for us.

“Islamic law (Shariah) was developed to serve as the blueprint for an ideal Muslim society. It regulates a Muslim's religious duties to God such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, social obligations as well as social transactions such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, business contracts, and political issues including war and peace. [emphasis added] (p42)

Is it being unreasonable to point this out? Sometimes it does look as if Islamic reform is some vast intellectual play on words.

A Muslim reviewer of the recent “Rethinking Islamic Reform” debate at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, [Ref 12] reported as follows:

“So is Dr Tariq Ramadan calling for something new in the call for reform? In general, he and other contemporary revivalist thinkers are really regurgitating the message of their predecessors that we need to engage in the process of ijtihad in order to translate the spirit and message of the texts upon the context (waqi’). And not that Islam itself requires reform like certain other faiths.

.... Islam, in essence, is not in need of reform because the basic fundamental teachings cannot be changed, but it is our understanding or the ‘aql (intellect) that needs reform.” [Ref 13]

Another and possibly wiser one commented:

”Tariq Ramadan talked about there being many interpretations of the Qur’an. Radical reform is not to adapt to the west but to return to fundamentals. It is not Islam that needs reforming, it is people that needs (sic) reforming.” [Ref 14]

And then added: “Those that attended to understand the subject will have left with more questions than answers.” [emphasis added]

Islamic scholars, experts and Muslims themselves come up with the most amazing rebuttals of any criticism of Islam. For example, if something questionable in Western eyes is pointed out or some practice which most people would not accept in the modern world is remarked on, the response is “not all Muslims believe that, practice varies widely”.

You have to understand that Islam is followed in different ways not only between countries but within countries, as if this excused the particular practice that had been pointed out, however unpleasant, unnecessary, or unfriendly, it might be.

Also, it is patently obvious to anyone who isn’t a hermit that all Muslims are not the same.

You also have to be very sensitive to shades of meaning that might apply to any Islamic belief. “Nuance” is the favourite word of Islamic apologists.

Another obfuscation which is especially relevant concerning reform is the diffuse nature of authority in Islam. These passages appeared in a recent book review by an American Professor of Religion and Director of Islamic Studies, [Ref 15] a man who must know what he is talking about.

“.... this messiness at the heart of contemporary Islam that needs to be highlighted ….. All of us …. need to recognize the real face (or faces, more accurately) of the 21st-century Muslim world ….

…. today’s Muslim world, its enduring search for consensus and its multiple contestants for authority.”

“. …. there is no such thing as orthodoxy or a single right view, only authority derived from consensus, which may be formal or informal. One informal way to reach consensus is to encourage debate about critical topics, though one cannot preempt that debate by declaring its outcome in advance. One must first invite others, no matter how divergent their outlook, to express their view on the debate topic—e.g., stoning of women for adultery.”

This conjures up an interesting “might have been”.

Dear Martin,

Thank you for your theses, all 95 of them. I’m sure you are aware they have received a wide range of reactions throughout the Christian world from wholehearted agreement, partial agreement, to outright condemnation. I have to say I lean towards the latter.

In the interests of consensus I am setting up a study group to lay the foundations for a bi-annual conference of representatives of every opinion at which we can evolve a common position to submit to the faithful. I do hope you can attend the early ones and chair a few sessions. I’m sure in a few centuries we can arrive at a view all members of the Church can live with. In the mean time keep up the good work.

Yours indulgently,

Leo x

P.S. Please don’t nail your letters to the cathedral door. The maintenance man gets quite upset. Give them to the bishop. He will see that they get to me.

(7) Problems must be tackled – Thesis 92

Professor Esposito gives us a book entitled ”The Future of Islam” that says nothing about the future of Islam. Perhaps he senses the size of the problem.

His constant accusation that American and British foreign policy, past and present, is the cause of Islam’s problems especially its failure to produce ideas and behaviour suited to the modern world, is ill-founded and he fails to address adequately the issues created by Muslims in the West.

Muslims in the West have none of the restrictions that Muslims in Muslim countries face; repressive regimes hostile to new ways of thinking. Muslims in the West can decide what they make of their religion without let or hindrance and yet we have the poison of the Islam Channel and the sinister hypocrisy of the Islamic Forum of Europe. And, we have educated Muslim leaders who play with words.

Esposito would have done a lot more good if he had explained to European Muslims why the Swiss banned minarets, why the French are banning burkas, and why the British public have such a low regard for Islam, and the significance of freedom of speech, genuine pluralism, and the separation of church and state.


[Ref 1] “The Future of Islam” by John L. Esposito, Oxford University Press, 2010

[Ref 2] Summary of Gallup’s “What Muslims Think”

[Ref 3] Living Apart Together – British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism - Survey of British Muslims carried out by Populus in 2007

[Ref 4] White House Faith Adviser Defends Sharia Remarks

[Ref 5] The 95 Theses - a modern translation

[Ref 6] Europe is failing its Muslims - British Council and Intelligence Squared Debate

[Ref 7] Re-programming British Muslims: A study of the Islam Channel - Islam Channel Part 1

[Ref 8] One Law for All – Yes and No

[Ref 9] What the British think of religion and Muslims

[Ref 10] Labour ‘infiltrated’ by Islamic radicals

[Ref 11] Why is secularism incompatible with Islam? By Yusuf Al-Qaradawi

[Ref 12] “Rethinking Islamic Reform” debate at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

[Ref 13] ”.... Islam, in essence, is not in need of reform”

[Ref 14] “It is not Islam that needs reforming, it is people that needs reforming”

[Ref 15] “The Polite Islamophobia of the Intellectual” - A Book Review By Bruce B. Lawrence